If you don't know Elena Ferrante — and judging by conversations I've had, many readers still don't know her books — it's partly because Ferrante herself doesn't want to be known.
"I believe that books, once they are written, have no need of their authors," Ferrante declared in a letter to her publisher in 1991 when her first novel, Troubling Love, was about to come out. "If [books] have something to say," Ferrante continued, "they will sooner or later find readers; if not, they won't."
With that mini-manifesto, Ferrante turned her back on the business of bookselling and symbolically allied herself with the loners of the literary world — the Pynchons and Salingers. Except, that Ferrante went them one better because we don't even know her real name: "Elena Ferrante" is a pseudonym.
Naturally, rumors abound that Ferrante is really a man. The novels are too unsentimental about marriage and motherhood; too confident in their command of Italian politics to be the work of a woman — or so goes the logic of lunk heads who've never heard of Nadine Gordimer, George Eliot, Doris Lessing, Iris Murdoch ... Oh, why bother?
For the past few years, Ferrante's publisher, Europa Editions, has been bringing out her novels about an edgy decades-long friendship between two women in Naples. The fourth and final of the so-called "Neapolitan Novels," entitled, The Story of the Lost Child, has just been published and, like its predecessors, it's been translated into English by Ann Goldstein.
It's spectacular, but you will only realize how spectacular The Story of the Lost Child is if you do not cheat. You must read the three earlier (also superb) Neapolitan Novels or the perfect devastation wrought by the conclusion of this last novel will be lost on you.
In My Brilliant Friend, the first book of the quartet, Elena Greco and Lila Cerullo meet as children, playing with their dolls in the rubble of their working class neighborhood in Naples right after World War II. Lila is the "Brilliant Friend," and also the Queen Bee; Elena the more recessive drone. Lila leaves school after fifth grade to work at her family's shoe repair shop; she marries, has affairs, raises a disappointing son and then a lovely, quick-witted daughter.
Elena, whose family has permitted her an education, also marries; her husband is a scholar and they have two daughters. In this novel, which opens in the early 1980s, Elena is drawn into an affair and gives birth to a third daughter by her lover.
Elena's star finally seems ascendant: after all she's the one who's achieved a larger life as a feminist writer and novelist; while, despite what one character aptly calls Lila's "dancing brain," she's stuck in the rough world of her childhood.
But, never underestimate a Queen Bee. Midway through this novel, Elena, the conquering literary hero, returns to her old neighborhood and finds herself reverting back into the sidekick role whenever she walks beside Lila. Here's Elena's dismayed description:
"I was a well-known writer ... I was often mentioned in the newspapers. ... And yet next to her, in the place where we were born, I was only a decoration. ... Those who had known us from birth attributed to her, to the force of her attraction, the fact that the neighborhood could have on its streets an esteemed person like me."
That quote gives you a fleeting taste of the emotional intelligence of Ferrante's writing, as well as its wit and toughness. "The Neapolitan Novels," taken together as one long epic that stretches from childhood to old age, are so smart about the darker currents of female friendships, the discrepancies between sexual desire and sexual politics, the high cost of a class migration like Elena's, and the ultimate "velocity with which life [is] consumed."
The conclusion of The Lost Child masterfully returns to the opening moments of the first novel and shows us what we've been blind to all along. "She moves you ... , and she ruins you," says Elena in this novel about Lila. That's also not a bad way to describe Ferrante's power: "She moves you ... , and she ruins you."
Brava, Elena Ferrante whoever you are.